Forecasting a plan for artificial intelligence

Weather data has become vital to the AI equation. Pelmorex CEO Sam Sebastian shows marketers how to build their smarts.

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A slow-and-steady approach will win the AI race.

Pelmorex president and CEO Sam Sebastian knows from experience that tapping into the immense power of artificial intelligence takes a calculated, controlled approach. Marketing departments that need catch up to AI-focused firms like his shouldn’t just blindly try to sprint to catch up, but invest in artificial intelligence-based initiatives at a steady pace keeping the long game in mind, he advises.

Sebastian, who worked at Google for more than a decade before moving to Pelmorex in September 2017, is leading the company that successfully pivoted from a television-focused business to a mobile-first company to a company that now sees AI and data at the core of everything they do.

The Oakville, Ont.-headquartered company was founded 30 years ago by Montrealer Pierre Morrisette and used to be primarily known for its television business, namely The Weather Network in English Canada and MétéoMedia in Quebec. But these days, most Canadians primarily know it for its Weather Network app, which the company perfected using data and AI. Now, it’s using its experience with data (as well drawing from a deep pool of it) to offer business insights to advertisers.

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Forecasts for marketers
Pelmorex has long had big brands, from GoDaddy to Reactine to Golf Town, advertise on its Weather Network app. Now it’s taking its marketing business a step further, offering data analysis that reveals the correlation between sales and weather, for example.

“[If] we know the correlation between the barometric pressure and the sale of Frosty’s then all of a sudden as a client you’ve got some amazing insights to stock the shelves, to market your product to make sure you have the right staffing levels etcetera for when those conditions appear so we’ve used AI to help build those correlation models.”

Weather-related companies have been viewed by those working with AI as a rich source of data since 2015, when IBM announced it would be acquiring the U.S.-based Weather Company, largely to provide data needed to power Watson, its AI platform. It might seem like a narrow focus, but weather data can provide insights that predict changes in consumer behaviour, especially when combined with data sets like store traffic, sales and location.

Here in Canada, Golf Town recently worked with Pelmorex on geo-fencing and precise targeting, using its location data via The Weather Network app. By identifying aggregated user segments that enter golf courses but do not enter Golf Town locations, Pelmorex helped determine specific locations for Golf Town’s flyer distribution, according to Pelmorex.

Five top tips
For marketers who want to help their companies jump on the AI bandwagon, the CEO advises not betting all your chips on the trendy technology.

The first step, he advises, is taking an inventory of current processes and data your company or department currently has. The second step is prioritizing and scoring your current processes to see where there can be improvements or efficiencies that could be made by using AI. The third step is to test those improvement hypotheses.

“AI is not a panacea, it’s not going to solve all the problems, but if you don’t at least start testing it you won’t have an idea of how you can employ it,” notes Sebastian.

The fourth step is to attract and retain talented experts who are knowledgeable in AI, such as data scientists and engineers. It’s a very competitive market for AI talent these days, warns Sebastian, so be prepared. Sebastian says offering top talent interesting and challenging work, and a large historical data set like the one Pelmorex has, is key to winning the talent war.

The fifth and final step is once you’ve started testing and building your talent roster “slowly and surely” adding AI capabilities as needed.

And while marketers should use caution, embracing the idea of constant change is key to staying alive as the marketing world pivots from traditional ways of doing business to new ways that are increasingly driven by AI.

“You know we’re the ninth largest website in Canada the fourth largest app and that doesn’t happen by accident,” says Sebastian. “That happens by embracing a lot of changes and it has allowed us to build a great business that keeps growing versus some other traditional players, such as newspapers or other players, that may have pivoted a little bit and then it’s too late.”